Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Video Review: 'Screenplays That Sell'

Allison Burnett is an L.A.-based novelist and screenwriter. He has written numerous Hollywood movies, involving people such as Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Joan Chen, Heather Graham, Josh Hartnett, Diane Lane, Samuel L. Jackson, Lara Flynn Boyle, Morgan Freeman, Radha Mitchell, Kelsey Grammer, Kate Beckinsale, and former Adelaide boy Anthony LaPaglia, among many others.

I first noticed his name when I watched the romantic drama Autumn in New York on DVD, while undergoing chemotherapy back in 2007. When I heard he had released a video detailing the secrets of his amazing success, I wanted to see it.

Here's the point: Allison Burnett has written a dozen movies, including a run of seven consecutive spec scripts, every one of which sold to Hollywood. Well over 99% of all spec scripts written never sell. The odds of being in that less-than-one-per-cent that do sell, seven consecutive times, are beyond my memories of the Probability Theorem, but they would be astronomical. There has to be something more than luck at work here.

His background is that he was a theater-geek in high school, who then spent ten years writing plays, short stories and novels
in New York, while working as a high school tutor and proof-reading at a law firm. At the end of that first ten years he had earned just $100 from his writing.

He moved to L.A. in 1990 to write screenplays.

The first significant fact he tells us, in his video Screenplays That Sell, is that he didn't approach screenwriting while thinking romantically of himself as an artist; he was comparing screenwriting with proof-reading legal documents and tutoring high school kids. It was to be a business, a way of earning a living.

Soon after, he went bankrupt. Desperation brought a sharper focus. He was writing spec scripts that producers agreed were well-written, but that they refused to buy. Allison began to observe the patterns of his failures-to-sell.

In the struggle between you and the world, back the world. —Kafka
Allison Burnett and Alan Watt (LA Writers' Lab)
From there he recounts the process by which he learned the rules of How To Sell a Screenplay in Hollywood. It's a great story, well told.

Here are just a few of the pointers from the video.

  • Producers will not buy your script, if they cannot sell your script.
  • Even when a studio can make a movie for $5million, they still have to spend $35million around the world to market that film.
  • You have to write for movie stars.
  • There's no green light in the studio world without a movie star saying 'Yes.'
  • You want your lead actor to have speeches, you want them to have an Oscar clip, you want them to have big emotions, you want them to have set pieces where they can really act.
  • What's 'in' and what's 'out' changes over time, but the genre in which you choose to write is absolutely crucial. 
  • It's becoming harder to sell romantic comedy. 
  • Beware of writing anything about grownups. 
  • Spec scripts need to have a youth element.
  • Do not offend.
  • A lot of writers try to get approval and love way too early. Get the script right first.

This is a 90 minute video in which a successful spec script writer explains the things which moved him from consistent failure to consistent success. It is solid with information. I couldn't get through the entire video in a single sitting; there's too much to think about. Allison Burnett is easy to listen to: nice voice, clear diction, well organised.

The thing is, it's going to cost you US$10, give or take, depending on exchange rates, etc., to get hold of the video. I wondered why he didn't go the traditional route and turn it into a book, but that's becoming a crowded field. And there's the other question, of whether people learn better via their eyes or their ears. I do better if I can see the material written down, which is partly why I take notes. For some people, having someone tell you the information is more effective.

I recommend this video to anyone aiming to crack the Hollywood spec script market.

If it were a book, I'd say it was a steal at $10. The information is 2012 current. I was surprised by some of the things he shared on what genres are currently selling, what to avoid, how movie stars think, the difference between a star and a character actor, his theory of pitching, and (my favorite) how a writer can plunder a studio meeting.   I especially enjoyed the sense he gives of how things really unfold when writers negotiate with producers/agents/studios.

Screenplays That Sell is worthy of your time and money. Here's a short clip so you can see for yourself.

First posted:29 October 2012

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